Sunday, 17 February 2008

With the Sandinistas in Leon

Saturday 16th February

Check out photos from the tour on flickr here

We decided to take the Sandinista Tour of Revolutionary Leon this afternoon with a veteran combatant of the FSLN. We eventually parted after four hours walking around the war-torn monuments and places, the museums and memorials to thousands of brave individuals who had the commitment and passion to stand up against the military of a vicious dictatorship. Our guide was Dionisio, a quiet spoken man of humility yet conviction. In many ways there was a massive gulf between us. Here was a man who every night risked his life to man watch-towers, follow coded instructions and make bombs in the violent struggle against death camps, tanks and indiscriminate bombing. He could have been killed by the National Guard, Contras, or one of his own home-made bombs – as his younger brother was. While we have led very protected, privileged lives and are able to visit the country to find out something about the Sandinistas beyond The Clash album and the news of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Leon was the capital of the long-running revolution against dictatorship in Nicaragua. This left-leaning and poor university town has long been a centre for liberal thought and art. Opposition here was some of the strongest and involved a cadre of a few hundred armed combatants fighting an underground guerrilla war whilst supported by thousands of the population. Here fighting was sometimes street-by-street. Actions could be an assassination attack on a house of National Guard one night, the defence of a church against tanks the next. The FSLN – or Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – was formed in 1961 to lead the fight against the dictatorship of the Somoza political dynasty. They took their name from the anti-Imperialist struggle of Augusto César Sandino during the 1930s.

Dionisio fought in the streets of Leon during the 1970s and is still an active member of the party, now in power again at last following the 2006 elections. He took us to the political prison, known as Prison 21 after the year it was built, where prisoners held 100 to a small room were regularly tortured with beatings, teeth filings, electric shocks and suspense upside down in water. It was all the more poignant when he only told of his two tortured stays in the political prison, but only after Georgia asked him. We saw two churches shelled by the military in the 1970s because the Sandinistas used the bell towers as watch towers. There is the street where four students were gunned down during a demonstration in 1959, the places they fell marked by four crosses painted on the road below a memorial. The courtyard building, then a social club, where the first of the three Somoza dictators was assassinated in 1956 by poet Rigoberto López Pérez disguised as a waiter. Near sunset we went to the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs which houses the photographs and some personal effects of people killed in the struggle. We ended at a the third mural on the tour which was painted in the 1990s to depict the history of Nicaragua from indigenous roots, via Conquistadors and the struggle to end with two children running hand-in-hand to a future Nicaragua of open land, lakes and mountains.

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the tour was to spend time with someone who risked his life to fight fascism and could tell us his personal recollections of fearing the National Guard taking him during the day because of scratches on his arms and legs caused by crawling defensively on the ground and of fighting them at night at locations communicated by secret signs.

I recommend booking this tour which is easy. Go to the FLSN headquarters on the central park, opposite the cathedral and ask for Dionisio. The tour is $10 per person.

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